Giving Thanks

It’s cliche to be expressing thanks this time of year, but today – after a busy morning running around followed by a mid-afternoon nap in the big overstuffed chair – I awoke to two cats draped across my lap, purring. And I felt thankful. Thankful for small furry bodies keeping me warm on a rainy day. Thankful for their gazes which tell me that I am their whole world.

So I’d like to thank all the felines who came before who have shared their companionship and love…and their lessons about life and death…with me.

KC

To K.C., my first cat when I was a teenager. He loved to annoy my mother by sleeping on the clean linen and taught me that I would do pretty much anything to save my cat – including climbing out onto a slippery roof to retrieve him. He was the first to teach me that hearts can be broken from many miles away: he’d gone to live with my sister because I wasn’t able to keep him and passed away without me learning about it until later. (That’s my sister in the picture.)

Lovely

To Lovely, who wasn’t even my cat. She wandered into the basement one day while I was doing laundry. Emaciated and weak, she cried for attention. Sucker that I am, I took her to the vet and found that she had cancer. I’d never seen her in the neighborhood before so I can only assume that her owners, discovering her illness, had tossed her out like garbage. So I felt it my duty to give her peace with caring human hands holding her as she passed. It was the wonderful staff at Broadway Pet Hospital who dubbed her Lovely. They didn’t want her to die unnamed or unloved. Only in my life for a few days, I believe it was her task to teach me about death firsthand, preparing me for the time three years later that I would have to let go of Indy, who I had raised from kittenhood.

Indy1To Indy, my first cat as an adult. I found him at a pet store marked down multiple times from $9.99 to $3.99. He was the smartest cat I’ve had, able to open drawers and cupboards, digging out toys that I had hidden away. At night, he lay on my right side. I would drape my arm across his body and he would wrap his tail around my arm. He taught me the true, and sometimes expensive, responsibilities of cat ownership.

marian1To Marian, who taught me that I had enough love for more than one pet at a time. She would sit in my lap while I was on the computer and rub her slobbery face all over my hands while I typed. (Yes, cats can slobber.) And she taught me guilt. The day before she unexpectedly died from a blood clot, I’d been very busy and kept pushing her away, unable to give her the attention she craved. There was no time to apologize to her, only to tell the vet to end her suffering as quickly as possible. I’m sorry Marian.

FluffyTo Fluffy, who I took in as an elderly feline on behalf of an elderly friend who could no longer care for her. She turned out to be sick, so our time together was short, but it was long enough for many laughs, like the times – completely oblivious that there was already a cat sitting on my lap – would climb right on top of that cat (usually Annie).

 

AnnieTo Annie, who taught me that it’s the cats who are in charge. She would sit on the floor halfway in between the couch and the computer desk…and wait. When she felt that I had spent a sufficient amount of time at the computer, she issued her demands: a series of sharp “MOWS” (not meows, mows) until I obeyed her and sat on the couch, so she could sit on my lap. She had deep maternal instincts, helping to raise Turtle and Bender. She was the only cat who missed those who had passed before her, looking for them in their usual hidey spots.

And, of course, to Turtle, who I’ve written of many times before. She taught me that your soul mate is not always the same species as you.

And to Ariel, who I lost last month. She taught me that a single act of kindness can change your entire world.

You can see photos of Turtle and Ariel in earlier blogs.

BoysTo Bender and Paco, thank you for being with me today. What would I do without your head butts and forehead licks, Bender? And your nose rubs, Paco? I hope that I can do whatever is needed to make your lives better. We will always have love in this house.

And lest I forget the people:

Thank you friends and family. Thank you to the childhood friends who found me on Facebook (yeah, Facebook can be a huge sucking waste of time, but I’ve reconnected with many people important to my past. It’s also giving me a chance to learn about my nieces and nephews who grew up halfway across the country and a way to get to know my two sisters-in-law.)

Thanks to the friends who found themselves terrific spouses who I’m lucky to also count as my friends.

Thanks to the friends I’ve made in my world travel with Lindblad Expeditions. I look forward to traveling with you again.

Thanks to all of those friends and relatives who have raised intelligent, outspoken, independent, and interesting children. It gives me hope for the future.

Thanks to those of you who have bought my e-books. I hope that I’ve entertained you.

And many thanks to the ancient Mesopotamians for inventing beer.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part I)

In honor of the two-year anniversary of my Antarctic odyssey and its tremendous emotional impact on me, I’d like to repost some older entries. If you’re a new follower, I hope you enjoy. Let’s explore – our minds and our world.

It’s a bit tricky to jog on a treadmill on the deck of a moving ship.  The pitch, the roll, your stride, your rhythm. You have to anticipate, to compensate as your foot lands short when the deck pitches upward, or extend your stride when the ship pitches down into the troughs.

I’m not talking about those massive cruise ships with their massive stabilizers.  I’ve never been on one and, quite frankly, have no desire to ever go cruising with 4000 of my closest friends.  My preference is for smaller vessels, which usually advertise themselves as eco-cruisers or expedition ships, like the 367-foot long, 148 passenger National Geographic Explorer.  The Explorer, too, has stabilizers of course, but the ship is small enough for you to feel the ocean, to connect with it in a way impossible on big ships. That may not always be a good thing – barf bags anyone?  But when the swells are just right, it’s like being rocked to sleep in a hammock while the slap of the waves against the hull, the faint hum of the engines, and the cries of the trailing seabirds become your background music.

But there’s no closing your eyes, losing yourself in any music, when jogging on this treadmill. (Yes, I like to jog with my eyes closed. That’s why you’ll find me inside on a treadmill and not outside, bothered by those pesky worries about running into traffic…or off a cliff.)  But even when safely ensconced on a treadmill, there are times when I won’t, or can’t, close my eyes.  Sailing alongside the Antarctic Peninsula is one of them.  If there was ever a vote taken for best jogging scenery, I think Antarctica would win.

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Imagine yourself up on the Explorer’s Wellness Deck, just below the Bridge Deck, your feet rising and falling with the ship as it runs through the waves, gliding past dark, jagged peaks coated in striated patterns of snow scarred by avalanches. I dare you to close your eyes.

I only wish I had discovered this joy sooner than halfway through the trip.  As I wrote in an earlier posting “Healing Through Horror” I’d been very upset by leaving behind my terminally ill cat, Turtle, and it took me many days to recover my emotional stability, to truly revel in this adventure I had embarked upon.

But finally in the darkness of my cabin one night a tiny voice came to me telling me that Turtle was still alive despite my certainty that she had already passed. I dared not admit to that hope – lest I be disappointed upon returning home.  But it was enough of a spark to get me up early the next morning, grab my iPod, and get on that treadmill.  There to discover the joy I had been missing: music in my ears, Antarctica outside the window.  Despite the turmoil of my emotions, I found myself running to the rhythm of the waves, kicking my heels back, with a smile spreading across my face. It became a carefully choreographed dance between my feet, the ship, and the waves.  A trio of partners intertwined.

It may sound strange to many, but my favorite music genre is movie soundtracks. (I still remember the odd looks that admission earned me during a lunch time conversation with co-workers years ago.) There is no better music when it comes to motivating you to pick up your pace.  No, flowery rom-com theme music won’t quite cut it; heroic action scores – that’s the thing. And think of the irony of blasting the theme song from “Hawaii Five-O” while sailing past giant tabular icebergs ten times the size of your ship.

Still, that morning, the music – its daring, hero-infused notes – couldn’t have been more contradictory when it came to the scenery: Star Trek [2009], scored by Michael Giacchino.  But maybe not. What could seem as alien, as far away as outer space to the average person? Antarctica. More importantly, it fit my soaring mood.

Give the full soundtrack a listen. Especially the End Credits. See if that rise, the way the music crescendoes at the 4.5” mark, doesn’t make your feet faster, your breath quicker.  All the while surrounded by a myriad of seabirds: albatrosses, petrels, gulls, fulmars, and shearwaters, who fly past the windows, wheeling and diving, dancing – like you – with the joy of freedom in Antarctica.

A dream. A memory.

TurtleForBlog

She came to visit me again last night. I don’t remember if I was laying in bed or sitting in a chair in this dream, but there she was, climbing into my lap. No, not climbing. Pushing. She could be like that. Very pushy.

Her name was Turtle, and I lost her almost two years ago to old age. (Such is the heartbreak with pets.) I’m not sure if I called her to me last night, but I think I may have. I remember thinking how she immediately climbed into bed with me to snuggle as close as possible – meaning, she draped herself across my face – at nighttime. But I’ve done that before. I’ve asked her to return and not received an answer. Until last night. There she was, insistently pushing her way onto my lap and refusing to settle down until my arms were firmly wrapped around her. She wanted to be held. She missed being held.

So I held her…until the dream slipped away sometime before dawn. And when Paco seemed extraordinarily pushy in wanting extra cuddle time after breakfast, I put aside my chores and let him claim ownership of my lap.

Love your pets while they’re with you. You may not get the chance in your dreams.

A Hole in my Soul

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A year ago today, in the dark chill of a January morning, a piece of my soul was forever ripped away. After a few gasps for air with lungs rapidly shutting down, Turtle’s limbs relaxed and she was gone. I knew that she was, but I denied it, continuing to lay there with my beloved cat on my chest. I told myself that the gentle rise and fall I felt was her breath, not mine. But soon her body began to stiffen and chill like the winter air. I couldn’t ignore the truth any longer. It was time to drive her to the veterinary clinic and hand her off for delivery to the crematorium. I wrapped her in a towel and, as undignified as it was, I put her in a box. I couldn’t bear the thought of returning home with an empty cat carrier in my hand as I’ve done in years past.

Turtle is, of course, not the first pet I’ve lost, but the hardest to lose. She was my soulmate and I miss her still. I think of those last few days, of the joy of having her with me for one last Christmas and one last New Year’s. But I also reflect on what I could have done to make her passage easier. I knew that she was ready to go on Friday, the 4th. I could tell. It’s something you come to learn as a pet owner. But I needed to go to the office. I vowed that I would only work a partial day and get back as quickly as possible. But that didn’t quite happen. I wasn’t able to escape until close to the end of the day, giving me only an extra hour to spend with her. And the vet closes early on Fridays. Selfishly, I did not rush to take her in for euthanasia because I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I told myself she’d make it through the night.

But as I lay awake with her, holding her on my chest, I knew she wouldn’t. Turtle suffered through two seizures before the end came. While I doubt she was aware of much after the first seizure (maybe even before), I too suffered watching her, feeling her little body tremble and thrash. I begged her to let go and slip away; I told her it was okay to go to kitty heaven, to join Indy & Marian & Annie & Fluffy. But I still watched the clock tick away the minutes for nearly an hour before those final gasps for air came on January 5, 2013.

ImageSo tonight I light a candle for her memory, and I look through her photo album at her kitten pictures, and I choose to remember her healthy and happy, draped across my face sound asleep. And I remember those little moments I wish I’d caught on film like when Turtle was a wee little furball, and she came bounding across the room like a rubber ball, bounced off the coffee table, bounced off the sofa, and bounced right past my head and up on to the window screen, her tiny claws latched on tight. She hung there for a moment, looking around, and then started screaming her little head off. It took me a couple minutes to peel her off the screen.

Thank you, Turtle, for 16 years of love. Can you feel my tears?

The Best Christmas Ever

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Presents under the tree, turkey in the oven, friends and family gathered ‘round, phone calls from loved ones far away. These are the kinds of things which make a perfect Christmas.

But the perfect Christmas isn’t always the best Christmas – that one Christmas which remains in the forefront of your memory.

I usually spend my holidays with good friends who ‘adopted’ me into their family years ago. And it’s usually a rollicking good time: food, laughter, some liquor, playing with the kids, playing games ranging from Fluxx, to Munchkin, to Chez Geek, to Battle Cattle, to Give Me The Brain.

But last year, those four “disease vectors” (otherwise known as my friends’ four young children) had brought home a nasty flu bug which was making its rounds through the family. They didn’t want to infect anyone else. Christmas got cancelled.

I thought about making other plans, but I knew that 2012 would be the last Christmas for my beloved cat, Turtle. She was 16 and her kidneys were failing. And she was painfully thin. I decided to stay home and devote my holiday to her.

I tried to get her interested in the cat toys I opened, but it was the other three kitties who pounced on the fluffy mice and wrapping paper. Turtle only wanted to climb into my lap. laptime So after all the gifts were opened, and my hot chocolate all gone, I put on a DVD and we cuddled in the big chair. She was never much for curling up into a ball on my lap except on occasion. So she took her usual position: stretched out across my torso, her head resting on my right shoulder.

(As a kitten, Turtle would plant her face in the side of my neck while kneading it with her paws and sucking on my skin. [I’m told that’s a sign she was weened too early.] Ever since, she’s been most comfortable when she’s as close as possible to my face. We would often sleep cheek to cheek.)

So we spent Christmas like that, her face next to mine, my arms wrapped around her, keeping her warm. It was the last day I heard her purr. And it was the best, most rewarding, Christmas I’ve ever spent, for she would be gone eleven days later.

Sometimes you don’t need to do anything for Christmas except spend some time with a loved one: person or pet. And you don’t need to give anything except some love. Image

A toast to Sir Ernest Shackleton: the Boss

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A year ago today, myself and the rest of the Houston Nine, along with the other passengers and crew of the National Geographic Explorer stood – cups of rum in our hands – at the grave, of Sir Ernest Shackleton (1874-1922), one of the principal figures of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.

ImageAfter Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton set out – as leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) – to become the first to cross Antarctica on foot. The mission was struck by disaster when his ship, the Endurance, became trapped in the pack ice of the Weddell Sea and subsequently crushed, leaving the 28 men marooned with no hope of rescue. One might think this story would become forgotten as a horrible failure, or at least a lesson in the perils of polar exploration. Certainly, you’d think Shackleton would not be considered a hero. But he is.

Because no one died. Despite a 20 month ordeal of little food, injuries, conflict, depression, frostbite, below zero temperatures, and the total darkness of the Antarctic winters, every crew member of the Endurance returned home. Shackleton’s leadership abilities is credited for this miracle. Known as “The Boss,” Shackleton had a forceful personality and was also a keen judge of men. A frequently cited example is Shackleton’s division of the group once they reached the inhospitable Elephant Island -using lifeboats – about 100 miles out from Antarctica. Knowing they would never be rescued, Shackleton chose five other men to sail with him in a 20 foot open boat (which they christened the James Caird – a replica is shown below) Image800 miles to South Georgia Island where there was a whaling station at Stroemness. (It was an incredible feat of navigation.) He did not choose his right-hand man, Frank Wild, to accompany him; he left Wild in charge of the refugees on Elephant Island. Instead, he selected two of the crew’s biggest troublemakers to be part of that six man team. His reasoning: they would be under his watchful eye where their rebellious natures would not undermine the cohesiveness and survival of those left behind.

And because he never gave up: not only did the James Caird nearly capsize, they landed on the wrong side of South Georgia; they were forced to cross the treacherous mountains of the island on foot to reach Stroemness; and were repeatedly turned down or turned back by the sea ice conditions when they attempted to retrieve their men on Elephant Island. It wasn’t until the end of August, 2016, that Shackleton, with the help of Chilean sea captain Luis Pardo, that Frank Wild and the others were finally rescued.

We sailed past Elephant Island three days later. As you can see, the weather was not the best. The tall object on the right hand side is a statue dedicated to Captain Pardo.

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Shackleton later died before he could begin another journey to Antarctica, on board a ship anchored at South Georgia. Knowing that his heart truly belonged to the frozen southern ocean, his widow declared he be buried there rather than returned to England.

Shackleton’s saga is a tale oft told in books and film. ImageConsidered to be the best of the written accounts is Alfred Lansing’s 1959 “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage” – a highly recommended read!

There is even a business guide which details Shackleton’s advice on how to lead people: “Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer” by Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell.

Kenneth Branagh was the most recent to portray The Boss on film, in the 2002 A&E mini-series “Shackleton.”

(Side Note: There were reports that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were going to produce a new movie titled “Race to the South Pole” about Shackleton’s contemporaries: Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott, but I’ve seen no updates on that project since 2012.)

It has become customary for visitors to South Georgia Island, and its capital of Grytviken (now a research station and museum – complete with gift shop!), to visit Shackleton’s grave and to show respect to The Boss, drinking a toast to his memory. As snow flakes drifted down upon us, we raised our cups, drank, and then let the remaining droplets of rum fall upon his grave, and that of Frank Wild – whose ashes are interred just to the right (Shackleton’s right-hand man into eternity).

There is a quote, attributed to different sources and now found on t-shirts sold at the Grytviken gift shop, which neatly sums up Shackleton’s capabilities:

“For scientific discovery, give me Scott; For speed and efficiency of travel, give me Amunsend; but when disaster strikes and all hope is gone, get down on your knees and pray for Shackleton.”

I don’t usually drink rum – it’s not my favorite liquor – but today I had a sip and again toasted The Boss, and to my memories of Antarctica, to my memory of my beloved cat Turtle who nearly died while I was away, and to the hope that I can one day return to the frozen continent.

Dancing in Antarctica (Part III)

The best vacations never leave you. The sights, the sounds, and the emotions stay with you forever, laying dormant in your mind until they rise to the surface with even the slightest of urgings. From glancing at a photograph or hearing a penguin honk on t.v. or listening to a song, it can take only a second for unbidden memories to rise. In the most unlikely of places, even the deserts of New Mexico, Antarctica can live again.

It was just after dawn, and I had slipped into the steaming hot pool on the patio of my room at Ojo Caliente Mineral Springs Resort & Spa. Not wanting to disturb any other guests who might also be enjoying the cool morning air, I turned on my trusty 3rd generation iPod Nano – which has now been to five continents with me – and let it shuffle through songs at a low volume. But after a few minutes, the tunes weren’t fitting my mood. So I scrolled through the playlists, not looking for anything in particular, until I came upon Franti’s song again.

I leaned my head back and, yes, turned up the volume a bit, tapping out the beat with my feet on the opposite wall of the small pool.  It wasn’t dancing, not really, but close enough. As the ripples in the water, caused by my movements, washed over my legs, I imagined myself back aboard ship, listening to the faint slap of the waves against Explorer’s hull. And I remembered the emotional turmoil, the tug-of-war I had felt between despair and hope.

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Not all the lyrics in “Hey, Hey, Hey” speak of hope. They question death, guns, Wall Street greed. As the song reached the line “Until the morning comes again, I will remain with you my friend, and we will ride into the sun…” my thoughts naturally drifted back to Turtle. It’s been seven months since I lost her, but I still miss the feisty feline. Being winter when she died, around 6 am, we didn’t quite make it until dawn, but I did stay with my friend, and even if she did not see the sun again, I did. I held her there, on my chest, her now motionless head under my chin, until after dawn before taking her on her final journey.

With the sun rising higher in the New Mexico sky, I knew it would soon be time to go home to California. My next dawn would find me awakening to the plaintive meows of my other three cats. As much as my heart aches for Turtle, and for other cats lost before her, it is now my duty to take care of those cats still here. My job, my pleasure, to love them, cuddle them, give belly rubs, rest my cheek against them while listening to purrs, and clapping my hands and saying “no, no, bad cat”…..  And, yes, to dance with them when I’m in a silly mood, even if it annoys the hell out of them.